Ap­ple of Some­one’s Eye

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - An­jana Menon

Tech­nol­ogy has stamped it­self as the new fron­tier for civil lib­er­ties where the bat­tle for to­mor­row’s consumer will be fought on a trust score. Barely months af­ter one of the world’s most valu­able com­pa­nies, Ap­ple, re­fused to co­op­er­ate with the world’s most pow­er­ful govern­ment to hack a phone, Mi­crosoft is tak­ing on the United States Jus­tice De­part­ment.

It’s su­ing them over a gag or­der that re­stricts the firm from no­ti­fy­ing cus­tomers when the state seeks ac­cess to client in­for­ma­tion. Mi­crosoft, like Ap­ple, is pre­par­ing for the new econ­omy where ac­count­abil­ity, trans­parency and rep­u­ta­tion will be the ba­sis of trans­ac­tions, not sheer size.

Mi­crosoft has been in a pri­vacy tem­pest pre­vi­ously. The Ed­ward Snow­den whis­tle-blow­ing episode al­leged that the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency (NSA) snooped on Mi­crosoft’s cus­tomer in­for­ma­tion over­com­ing en­cryp­tion and ac­cess stor­age un­der the so-called Prism pro­gramme.

To be fair, other Sil­i­con Val­ley gi­ants were also part of the un­de­clared forced col­lab­o­ra­tion. The names in­cluded Face­book, Ya­hoo and Skype. At the time, most firms said they co­op­er­ated only on data about spe­cific clients, sought by the govern­ment through a ju­di­cial or­der.

Three years later, ad­vanc­ing tech­nol­ogy means more in­di­vid­u­als will start shar­ing lots of their data with big firms, which will store and re­de­ploy them to pro­vide greater ease of liv­ing and con­nec­tiv­ity. For th­ese new ser­vices, pri­vacy is every­thing.

In a fu­ture that Mi­crosoft and oth­ers are build­ing, all de­vices will talk to each other, in what is called the In­ter- net of Things (IoT), peo­ple will be com­mu­ni­cat­ing as holo­grams, and ma­chines will know far more about us than we can fathom.

A re­cent re­search pa­per by the Of­fice of the Pri­vacy Com­mis­sioner of Canada says, “The In­ter­net of Things in­volves the track­ing of a de­vice, the mo­ti­va­tion is to un­der­stand the be­hav­iour of the in­di­vid­ual be­hind the de­vice. In­deed, value is de­rived from the rich in­for­ma­tion about the in­di­vid­ual, their ac­tiv­i­ties, their move­ments, and their pref­er­ences. When in­fer­ences are made about the owner of a de­vice, it raises the ques­tion whether it’s the de­vice be­ing tracked or the in­di­vid­ual.”

Imag­ine, then, com­pa­nies bank­ing on this fu­ture af­ter hav­ing as­sured their cus­tomer of se­cu­rity and non­share­abil­ity of data, hav­ing to re­lease that data to govern­ments on the sly. So, when Mi­crosoft starts bang­ing on the doors of a court­room for re­dres­sal, make no mis­take. It’s also a fight to stay in busi­ness. Vi­o­lated pri­vacy is a high-pro­file show­stop­per on dis­play. When What­sApp an­nounced that all calls will be en­crypted from start to fin­ish, it’s telling users that no one — not even What­sApp — can hack into those calls. The com­mu­ni­ca­tion will re­main be­tween the sender and the re­cip­i­ent. And even if govern­ment agen­cies were to ask What­sApp for ac­cess, it could feign help­less­ness. In a sim­ple stroke, one bil­lion users could start see­ing the com­pany as a votary of their pri­vacy.

Ap­ple, of course, has al­ready be­come a poster boy among civil rights cam­paign­ers af­ter snub­bing US in­ves­ti­ga­tors seek­ing the key to un­lock the San Bernardino at­tack­ers’ iPhone.

Ef­fec­tively, the big tech­nol­ogy gi­ants are tak­ing the dis­trust the consumer voiced three years ago and rolling it into gun­pow­der against govern­ment agen­cies. In do­ing so, they are telling the consumer: it’s not them at fault.

For decades, tele­com com­pa­nies have shared voice calls with en­force­ment agen­cies be­cause it’s a part of their li­cence agree­ment. Hardly any have re­sisted. Tech­nol­ogy firms, how­ever, are not de­pen­dent on li­cences from govern­ments. So there is lit­tle need to toe the line.

In the con­nected world, pri­vacy is the big de­bate. To be fair, in­ves­tiga­tive agen­cies have ar­gued the world over that some level of ac­cess to elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions is re­quired to pre­vent acts of ter­ror in which in­no­cent lives are lost.

Still, in the ab­sence of some uni­ver­sal guide­lines on what con­sti­tutes a threat, trans­gres­sions are a grey area. As are dif­fer­ent rules in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. In the US, a court or­der is needed to snoop on cus­tomer data, while in In­dia, a bu­reau­crat can sign off that process as long as the en­force­ment agen­cies prove the need.

In a tech­nol­ogy world with­out borders, there is an ur­gent need for a uni­ver­sal law that will ad­dress pri­vacy is­sues. It needs the par­tic­i­pa­tion of mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers rang­ing from free speech ad­vo­cates, tech­nol­ogy firms, govern­ment agen­cies, to civil so­ci­ety to ar­rive at some con­sen­sus on how we will be reg­u­lated, and by whom. Un­til ma­chines take over, that is.

The writer is founder, Con­tent Pix­ies

No one can en­crypt you, sweet­heart

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